Gangs, Violent Crime, and Unintended Consequences

In the face of all the latest reporting on the 18% up-tick in violent crime in Chicago there has been scarcely little discussion of cause and effect in the media or among policy makers. However, a recent admission by Chicago police spokesperson Monique Bond underscores the role that police policy and actions play in inadvertently stimulating more frequent and fierce gang violence in Chicago. The zeal with which the Chicago Police Department has gone after street corner gangs in the past has, according to spokesperson Bond, contributed greatly to the increase in deadly violence. “The department’s been focusing on targeting gang hierarchies, which have been dismantled over an extended period of time,” she said. “[That’s] causing gangs to now operate in smaller crews that compete against each other for narcotic turf, which leads to deadly violence.”1

It may be hard to imagine today, but there was once an opportunity to steer the city’s youth gangs in a more constructive direction. The forerunners of what have become today’s most hardened and violent street corner gangs once made genuine efforts to move in the direction of positive community engagement. When black youth first began forming neighborhood cliques in the late 1940s and 1950s, neighborhood confrontations rarely turned deadly.2 Gang fights, or “humbugs,” were a fairly infrequent phenomenon but were usually stimulated by competition for access to neighborhood hangouts and recreational space. Urban youth gangs had yet to become involved in the emerging international drug traffic, which at the time was created and operated by organized criminal syndicates, known locally in Chicago as “The Outfit.”

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, black youth gangs developed elaborate organizational hierarchies that included official leadership positions, age groups, and female auxiliaries. By the mid-1960s, these institutional arrangements led to the establishment of administrative boards, regular weekly meetings, membership cards, and membership dues. During the Civil Rights and Black Power periods of the mid and late 1960s, black youth gangs underwent a politicization process much like non-gang youth and adults. Through various private grants and War on Poverty funding, a number of the largest youth gangs in Chicago began to acquire financial resources and important contacts beyond the scope of local municipal agencies. These resources were put to use cleaning up streets, opening youth centers, and developing employment-training programs. Of course, not all gang members chose the path of constructive community involvement. Some took up the mantel and rhetoric of self-determination to make the case that local youth gangs should have a controlling interest in neighborhood businesses, both legal and illicit.

At the very moment that youth gangs were being pulled in two divergent yet potentially empowering directions, the administrations of Mayor Richard J. Daley, State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, and the Chicago Police Department instituted a “War on Gangs” whose impact continues to reverberate to this day. Daley and Hanrahan’s “War on Gangs” was closely timed with the FBI’s well-documented surveillance and suppression of black political figures. The Chicago political machine declared their war on gangs in May 1969. By that fall, most of the leaders of Chicago’s black youth gangs had been arrested (on charges for which many would later be found not guilty). Vice Lord leader Bobby Gore was arrested in November 1969. Two weeks later, Fred Hampton, the charismatic leader of the Chicago Black Panthers who was attempting to orchestrate a peaceful coalition of the city’s youth gangs, was killed by Chicago police and State’s Attorney’s detectives in an aggressive and controversial raid on the organization’s headquarters.

Over the next two decades, the Chicago police department continued its war on gangs. In addition to repeatedly wiping out the youth gangs’ leadership structure, this policy contributed to some of the worst human rights violations perpetrated by any police department in the United States. As acknowledged in the CPD’s own internal investigation known as the Goldston Report, between 1972 and 1993, Commander Jon Burge led a ring of officers who used electroshock, mock executions, and an assortment of other torture techniques to extract confessions from over one hundred black male youth, many of whom had gang affiliations and some of whom were completely innocent of the assumed criminal conduct.

During the tenure of Superintendent Phil Cline beginning in 2003, the “street corner conspiracy busts” were heavily pursued.3 This tactic builds a conspiracy case around a single gang and a single drug spot. The results of the case usually involve the prosecution of the gang leaders in addition to the street-level dealers. The street corner conspiracy busts quickly became popular within Chicago police hierarchy because, as Superintendent Cline acknowledged in an interview discussing Operation Snakebite which targeted the Mickey Cobras gang, such operations “[make] us feel like we are making a difference.”4 Moreover, the Chicago mainstream media coverage surrounding these cases was always very positive for the department. But what are the larger costs? It is extremely important that the administrators of the criminal justice system make sense of the impact their actions have on communities throughout Chicago. How the Chicago Police Department approaches the enforcement of laws plays a significant role in shaping the future of communities throughout Chicago. Short-term effects:

  • There is no longer a single gang in control of a drug spot.
  • Violence is immediately generated by this void as rival gangs and individuals come in to take over the recently vacated drug spot.
  • There is now a leaderless clique of gang members that have to fight for their ability to control the drug spot or live in the same area they once controlled unchallenged.

Long-term effects:

  • As these busts add up, there is a significant increase in leaderless cliques of youths on the streets lacking any local affiliations to structure or restrain their actions.
  • Cliques and individuals that once were affiliated now fight against each other as well as against other gangs.
  • These cliques are now on-their-own and usually without a means to support their existence as they have now lost control over the drug spot that was their only means of material income. We are left only to guess at the amount of other crimes generated by their lack of access to their former means of economic support.
  • If any clique seeks to return to their once coveted spot, their only option is a resort to collective or individual violence, often resulting in a homicide by handgun.

What the CPD lacks is the desire or capacity for a rigorous assessment and evaluation of their past policy of war on gangs and street corner conspiracy busts. Despite spokesperson Bond’s recognition that past police actions have contributed to increased youth violence, there is no acknowledgment by higher officials within the CPD and criminal justice system that this policy is a violence generator and not a violence eliminator. No community should have to live with violent gangs in their midst. The critical matter is to implement the least destructive and most constructive path to realizing that goal. There are indications that a change in police policy and strategy may be on the horizon:

“Bond said the department is working on developing gang-fighting strategies to try to dismantle the smaller, younger and more fractionalized gangs. “Law enforcement is having to adapt to that and looking at different kinds of ways that are outside the traditional ways that we’ve been using to attack gang violence,” she said.”5

If we as Chicagoans truly want reduced levels of violence in our low-income high-crime neighborhoods then we must be prepared to face the unvarnished truth. It is neither ethical nor moral for authorities within the system to receive great press coverage for taking down the leadership of a gang when in reality the true outcome is a greater increase in the loss of life visited upon that community in the near future. Achieving a long-term reduction in gang violence associated with the illicit drug traffic will not be quick or easy. Nor will it involve the large-scale arrests and long-term incarceration of our youth. Long-term reductions in urban violence can only be achieved through long-term investment in our black and Latino youth and low-income communities of color.That solution however, will demand a creative and courageous stance on the part of our political leadership– one that seeks to build up our struggling communities as opposed to tearing them down.This means having a political and police authority that does not seek to make political points by callously blaming the city’s violence on poor parenting as was recently done by Mayor Richard J. Daley and Superintendent Jody Weis. Unfortunately, the history of police politics in the city of Chicago suggests that political posturing is more important than the lives or our young people. By: Tracy Siska and Joey Lipari of the Chicago Justice Project

Notes 1. Monique Bond, Chicago Police Department Spokesperson, Chicago Tribune, Aug 6, 2008. 2. Of course, it is important to note that white youth in Chicago had a long tradition of forming neighborhood gangs to defend their turf and absorb whatever political and financial spoils might come their way. These gangs, or “athletic clubs,” began to wane at the very same time that black youth gang membership began to explode. This trend follows closely the post-World War II demographic shift of whites to the suburbs and increased African American migration to urban centers. 3. During the 1980s, Cline took over as commander for Jon Burge in Area 2. After Burge’s transfer allegations of torture continued to pile up by his men under Phil Cline’s command. 4, See interview with Phil Cline at the Department of Justice web site. 5. Monique Bond, Chicago Police Department Spokesperson, Chicago Tribune, Aug 6, 2008

Tracy has nearly two decades of experience researching and working within criminal justice systems. When Tracy began pursuing a career dedicate to system reform, he found that no single organization existed to promote evidence-based discussions among law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Recognizing that citizens in Chicago deserved the right to demand transparency in their criminal justice system, Siska established the Chicago Justice Project. He received his Master of Arts degree in Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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